The Screenwriter – Not Your Average Joe

Between the Devil and Ms. Stone, Joe Eszterhas has discovered the secret of fame. Hollywood's highest-paid and most publicized screenwriter has not been deterred by three recent flops, or by the hoots he received for loudly defending one of them -- his brutal Las Vegas lap-dancing, iced-nippled camp epic, Showgirls -- as having “a deeply religious message.” The town's most consistent provocateur has not been shamed into silence by his miscalculation of what the public wants to see, or by recent attacks on Hollywood's debased values launched by the Republican right which seem aimed directly at him. Rather, he dismisses barbs fired at sensationalism in the media by Senator Bob Dole and others as “cheap grandstanding,” the very tactic he himself is often accused of. Eszterhas does not even seem daunted by the elaborate marital pentagon which had Hollywood slack-jawed in 1993, when he discarded his wife of 24 years and his devoted-family-man image to take up with the wife of one of his best friends, producer Bill Macdonald, who had abandoned his bride of five months to become engaged to Sharon Stone, the star of Eszterhas's 1992 hit Basic Instinct, after Stone's psychic told her that she and Macdonald had been lovers in a former life.

Ever since, gilt-wrapped smut has become the Eszterhas trademark -- scripts with showy, scenery-chewing parts for stars in which the action hurtles forward regardless of how illogical the plot may be. “He writes with a cattle prod,” says New York Times film critic Janet Maslin. “Every once in a while you get a little jolt. That's not the same as writing good dialogue.” Eszterhas, who displays a keen sense for marketing his own image, who is a master manipulator of the clubby Hollywood system, and who often intimidates those around him with his Big Daddy Joe Biker looks, can also thank Sharon Stone for catapulting him into the stratosphere. The performance she gave of the ice-pick-wielding killer he had created in Basic Instinct -- pure evil and pure sex, indulging in a bit of bisexuality and flashing frontal nudity -- was so riveting that it set a pattern for films to come in which women were offered up as corrupt beings whose sex kills.

The lower Eszterhas 's writing gets, however, the higher he rises. He has truly figured out the game. He's Hollywood's version of P.C. -- a proven commodity. It doesn't seem to matter that none of his 13 produced screenplays has been nominated for a Golden Globe or an Academy Award. His rewrite of Flashdance (1983) helped it gross $200 million worldwide. Jagged Edge (1985) took in $54 million, and Basic Instinct $352 million. He likes to boast that altogether his films have grossed nearly $1 billion. As a result, Hollywood can't resist betting on Eszterhas time after time, playing what-if with million-dollar chips. What if Eszterhas can come up with another Basic Instinct? Even if Showgirls and his latest, Jade, a sordid film noir manqué, have so far lost millions of dollars, so what? Look at Sliver, a dull, voyeuristic turkey Eszterhas adapted from an Ira Levin novel. It managed to make Sharon Stone undressed look boring. But although the movie bombed in this country, it took in more than $100 million in the ever expanding and less demanding foreign market.

And there's still more to come. In October 1994, Eszterhas sold a five-page outline for a story called One-Night Stand to Ted Turner's New Line Cinema for $2.5 million guaranteed upon delivery of the finished script, and another $L5 million if the film is made. The completed work has the hero getting oral sex from someone he's just met while he's on the phone with his doting wife and kids, then raping the stranger into ecstatic submission when she tries to leave, and then dumping his family for her a few days later. When I suggested to Eszterhas that it sounds like another barely believable hooker lead role, his wife, Naomi, objected, saying, “It's a love story. It's about him falling in love with me, and I certainly wasn't hooking!” The line for the poster could be taken from the heroine's mouth: “Love never makes the sex any better.” Other sample dialogue: He says, “I thought you couldn't come anymore.” She replies, “There's a lot of wetness in Niagara Falls.” Mike Figgis, the red-hot director of Leaving Las Vegas, is signed to direct.

"There are a lot of twisted dudes pulling the trigger in this town, and they respond to the kind of material that depicts ‘tie me up, beat me, hurt me, let's have sex with ski masks on.’ Eszterhas writes to their every fantasy,” says a Hollywood reporter. “He is a wonderful icon for all of that sexual perversion.”

Eszterhas, who came to America as a Hungarian refugee at age six, and later became a star writer for Rolling Stone, is now 51 and makes no apologies. He recently spent a long afternoon talking to me in his big Spanish-style stucco house several miles up the Pacific Coast Highway from the Malibu Colony. For years he isolated himself in Marin County with his first wife, Geri, and their two teenage children. After an ugly divorce, Marin is no longer friendly territory, so now he writes in guest quarters above his garage, from which he overlooks the stretch of coastline where Baywatch is filmed. He can also see into the nursery, where wife number two, Naomi, 37, and their two babies, Joseph, 2, and Nicholas, six months, play.

“Listen, I like pushing the envelope -- it's certainly true,” said Eszterhas, sitting in a big overstuffed leather chair. On one wrist he was sporting two gold bracelets -- one with a heart charm hanging from it -- and on the other a gold Rolex. “Part of it is a response to a feeling I have that most of the movies out there are pap, and it's the same old formula stuff. There's nothing in them, they're not provocative, they're not disturbing, they don't really move you. I've always loved the notion of doing movies that provoke people, either move them in their hearts or disturb them, but when they leave the theater it sticks with them.”

Lately, though, more often than not Eszterhas has enraged moviegoers, particularly women. “He lost me when he wrote Showgirls. He ought to be out there doing community service and saying his Hail Marys for doing that. He took out an ad saying Showgirls should be marketed to women. Joe is P.T. Barnum,” says producer Dawn Steel, who, when she was an executive at Paramount, worked with Eszterhas on Flashdance, and says she always thought he really liked women. “Showgirls was written with a penis, directed with a penis, acted with a penis. Where were the brains? There weren’t any – there was a penis! Showgirls represented to me a new low for Hollywood.” Steel adds, “Joe has chosen commerce.”

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